Chris Harman

Charting the struggle

(June 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 88, June 1986, p. 31.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Chartists, popular politics in the industrial revolution
Dorothy Thompson
Wildwood House, £6.95

CHARTISM was the world’s first mass working class movement.

There had been protest actions involving workers before. Strikes were as old as capitalism. Riots had been a frequent response to food shortages. Machine breaking was a way of reacting to the wage cuts and job losses that often accompanied new technology.

Workers were involved in all the great uprisings of the French revolution and in all the popular movements of Britain in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.

But the Chartist movement that sprang up in 1837–8 and lasted through until at least 1850 was the first in which workers identified themselves as a class fighting to transform society in their own interests.

The study of Chartism remains of tremendous interest and importance to socialists nearly a century and a half later. Unfortunately, it has not always been easy to undertake.

There have been books on particular Chartist leaders and particular aspects of the movement. But apart from the memoirs of the Chartist activist Gammage (reprinted a few years back by Merlin and still obtainable) there was not, until recently, any overall account of the movement from a sympathetic standpoint.

Dorothy Thompson’s book, published only two years ago and now available in paperback, fills this gap admirably.

She describes how workers’ protests over a range of issues – trade union rights, the workhouse system of the 1844 Poor Law, the demand for factory legislation, the introduction of police forces into industrial areas, coercion in Ireland – fused into a massive single movement.

The ostensible goal of the movement was political reform (the famous six points of the Charter). But for its supporters much more was at stake: a challenge to the whole structure of society which was being imposed in the wake of the industrial revolution.

She begins with an account of the movement’s origins and early years.

She then goes on to look at the elements which made it up – its leaders at the national and local level, the way in which whole industrial communities were drawn into action, the role women played in fighting alongside their husbands to defend the working class family against the workhouse, the attitude of the middle classes, the class composition of the movement.

In doing so she destroys many myths perpetrated about Chartism – the myth that it was based upon backward looking artisans rather than workers affected by the industrial revolution, the myth that it failed because people refused to follow moderate leaders, the myth that the best known leader, O’Connor was nothing more than an acrimonious demagogue.

Finally, she returns to the history of the movement, to tell of its second flowering with the general strike of 1842, of the attempt to escape from the impasse of defeat in the mid-1840s with the founding of the land company (a scheme for a giant workers’ co-op aimed at providing plots of land for the movement’s supporters), and of the final fling with the demonstrations of 1848.

Dorothy Thompson’s strength is her willingness to identify with and enthuse over the spontaneity of the struggle. There is none of that timid, Fabian disdain for self-activity and militancy which characterises so many other accounts of the movement.

For her, the Chartists failed, not because they were ‘too extreme’ or their demands ‘too excessive’, but because they faced an enemy such as no popular movement previously had had to encounter – a confident bourgeoisie which had conquered state power completely for itself.

There are two weaknesses to the book. In identifying with the spontaneity of the movement, Dorothy Thompson tends to downplay the arguments within it over ideas and strategies. This is regrettable, since many of those arguments continue to have relevance today.

Secondly, the book often assumes bits of knowledge that many readers new to the history of Chartism will not have.

But these are minor quibbles. This is a book which every socialist should get hold of and read.

Last updated on 27 October 2019